By Nick Said and Mitch Phillips
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa-based NTT Pro Cycling is in a three-week race to find a new sponsor or face the prospect of having to fold before the 2021 season, cutting off a path for riders from Africa to compete globally.
Africa's only professional racing team announced its top sponsors, Japanese telecommunications company NTT and Alcatel-Lucent (ALE) were pulling out last month.
Current team members include Italians Domenico Pozzovivo and Giacomo Nizzolo, the reigning European Road Race champion; they have been told to join other teams in 2021 if they can.
"After the bombshell was dropped by NTT very late on that they would not be sponsoring us next year, we had an open conversation with all our riders and staff to say they have to look after themselves," manager Doug Ryder told Reuters. "It is only fair to try to help them secure a job if possible."
Asked to comment, Jason Goodall, CEO of NTT Ltd, said the company's decision was not made out of the blue.
"We have been in conversations with the management of NTT Pro Cycling for some months as our contractual agreement has always been coming to an end in December 2020," he said.
NTT said it would continue to support the Tour de France and also back a wider range of partnerships focusing on the ways technology can support the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. ALE cited the COVID-19 pandemic.
NTT Pro Cycling were the first team from Africa to compete at the Tour de France in 2015, and are linked to the charity Qhubeka, which has distributed more than 100,000 bicycles to children.
The team were founded in 2007 and have since seen more than 50 riders from Africa compete around the globe on the Continental and World tours.
Ryder, who competed for South Africa in the road race at the 1996 Olympic Games, said their demise would have a knock-on effect across the continent.
There are seven riders from Africa in the 29-strong World Tour team this year.
There had been some preliminary discussions with potential new sponsors, Ryder said, but they are still a long way off finding a new backer.
NTT Pro Cycling are currently competing in the Giro d’Italia, where they were positioned fourth in the team standings before Tuesday’s 10th stage.
Ryder described this season as "chaotic and crazy" due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We had 29 riders in 15 different countries during lockdown," he said. "When we restarted the season, we had to compete in 110 races in 89 days. It’s hectic, but it’s also amazing what can be done when desperation sets in and there is a crisis."
(Reporting by Nick Said; editing by Philippa Fletcher/Mitch Phillips)